New York-based IFC Entertainment is in the second year of its day-and-date programme whereby 24 films a year hit theatres and VoD in 40 million homes on the same day. On the eve of Cannes, Mike Goodridge spoke to president Jonathan Sehring about the future of independent distribution.
When the dust settles on this year's Cannes, what's the betting one of the most prolific buyers of festival films will be New York-based distributor IFC Films' From last year's line-up, after all, the company bought domestic distribution rights to Palme d'Or winner The Wind That Shakes The Barley as well as The Exterminating Angels, Drama/Mex, Day Night Day Night and, in league with The Weinstein Company, Days Of Glory (Indigenes).
IFC's appetite now stretches to five or six films a year through its IFC Films label, and 24 a year - yes, 24 - through its day-and-date programme, which premieres the films simultaneously in theatres (as 'IFC First Take') and on video-on-demand (VoD) services (as 'IFC In Theaters'), hitting 40 million US homes.
So when Berlin 2006 opener Snow Cake was released in theatres last Friday (April 27) accompanied by a flurry of national publicity by its star Sigourney Weaver, you could buy it in your home for $6 or $7 on the same day.
For IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, the programme marks a significant step in the evolution of distribution in the US market. With new players such as MGM, The Weinstein Company, Overture, CBS, Summit and a ramped-up ThinkFilm set to flood the market with mainstream English- language films, finding space in theatres for true US independents and foreign-language cinema is, he says, 'almost impossible'. The prospect of keeping them on screens for more than a week is similarly dire.
'Since we've been in the distribution business, we've seen it change dramatically,' he explains. 'Financially, it doesn't make sense to release these films. Small companies can't do it and bigger companies can't justify spending that much time and money on it.
'Our experience releasing smaller movies was that you can't build it slowly and hope audiences are going to come any more. You have to spend a lot to keep the films on screens.'
'About two years ago, we started to see how many good movies we'd see at festivals were going without distribution,' he continues, 'and this concept started to make sense. We operate on very tight p&a budgets. We rely on good reviews and talent to support us. Ask Sigourney Weaver, who's done an inordinately large amount of work for us on Snow Cake. Ask Ken Loach and Cillian Murphy. We work hard on these movies. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is now Ken's biggest-ever grossing film in the US.'
Indeed the Loach film, which has taken $1.2m in North America, has recouped for IFC on theatrical rentals alone.
That's before on-demand, which is where the programme becomes unique. IFC, already a successful pay cable channel, signed its first carriage deal with Comcast's On Demand service in March 2006 for its In Theatres initiative. Combined with IFC's parent company Cablevision, that already represented 12 million homes.
A second deal came in November with In Demand, VoD supplier for Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications among others, representing another 13 million homes. A third deal was struck in March 2007 with DirecTV - another 15 million homes.
IFC receives a healthy percentage of the customer's payment, and Sehring says films have been selling at 25,000-150,000 buys over the 10-12 weeks they are available in the home. 'I think what will be borne out when the film-makers and sales companies have gone with us, is that they begin to see back-end cheques much earlier than with traditional models,' he says.
Sehring says he is bemused when US exhibitors rail at IFC for the new model as part of the shrinking windows battle, largely because the major exhibitors would not play independents by Lars von Trier or Alain Resnais in the first place.
On the contrary, he says a big percentage of VoD buys are in areas underserved by specialised venues. 'Numbers are particularly high in a suburb of Atlanta or outside Portland which don't have arthouse cinemas,' he says. 'Why should someone in a smaller market have to wait''
Meanwhile Sehring says marketing for IFC In Theaters is undertaken away from exhibition outlets, principally through cross promotions by the cable operators. IFC itself also markets the service on its own channel and in its three-screen New York cinema, IFC Center.
'The IFC brand is so strong among US audiences that they can trust the In Theaters programme is well-curated,' he says.
'This year, we have new films by Loach, von Trier and Resnais in there, for example. And in the future, if these films aren't going to go to theatres anyway, we might start putting movies straight to VoD.'
Spearheading acquisitions for the programme is Arianna Bocco, vice-president of acquisitions and production.
Meanwhile IFC Films has four films scheduled for release this year: romantic comedy Penelope starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy, John Dahl's comedy thriller You Kill Me, Patrice Leconte's comedy My Best Friend, and Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's UK documentary Deep Water.